Manda Scott – A Treachery Of Spies
Edition read: Corgi paperback, £8.99 I bought this new in paperback.
We open with violence in Paris in 1942, and a voice: “You may die here in darkness if you so desire, but I have come to offer you a proposition.” Then we move swiftly south to Orléans and forward to 2018 where “Christ there’s a lot of blood”. An elderly woman has been found dead in a car with three gunshot wounds, two to the chest and one to the temple. And one more detail that police inspector Inès Picaut fervently hopes was done post-mortem: the woman’s throat has been slashed and her tongue cut out. It’s a punishment once meted out by special teams in the French Resistance during the Second World War to those who collaborated with the Nazis…
Picaut’s case get more complex with the disappearance of Elodie Duval, a possible source of information on the dead woman – who the team discovers is in fact Sophie Destivelle, a former member of the Resistance. Elodie is ostensibly flying back from the US to her Orléans home, but no-one of that name has boarded any flight and her apartment shows no sign she has lived there for years. But Picaut unravels some secrets and makes a startling breakthrough.
In 1944, another agent tells Sophie: “You are either an exceptional asset or an exceptional liar and I have no idea which.” This pretty much sums up the 1940s sections, which deal with the training and deployment of Special Operations Executive teams from the UK to support the French Resistance, here specifically the Maquis de Morez (the Maquis were rural bands of guerrilla fighters). There are also those who seemingly collaborate but in fact risk their lives to pass information to the Resistance, and then there are agents embedded so deeply no-one but the highest handler knows what face goes with what codename.
We move frequently between the 1940s and 2018, but Scott never falters, balancing the two timelines delicately. The 1940s sections are action-packed and full of shifting loyalties, leaving the reader perpetually on edge. This is where the modern police procedural wrapped around the Second World War spy thriller comes into its own. It is also complex, but its forward motion is unyielding, with the painstaking work of Picaut and the team giving us respite between the flashbacks.
The tension and tedium of conflict is sharply realised, along with the intensity of the relationships formed under pressure. And there is no shying away from the physical and emotional toll of both the war and of Picaut’s job. Scott also shows the strain on agents in trying to keep track of one’s true self amid the lies necessary to stay alive. There are several delicate, emotional scenes of love and loss, which remind us that these people had passions and depths of emotion behind the hard façade.
When we find who killed Sophie and why, a wild kind of justice is served, for Picaut realises formal arrests and trials will never happen. This feels entirely fitting for a novel that has launched so many guerrilla-style assaults on the reader. Creating something so complex which reads so smoothly across more than 500 pages is no easy task, and I salute Scott’s craftsmanship.
A version of this review first appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 18 September, 2019. This is copyright of The Scotsman Publications and is being used in this instance with their kind permission.